Cons of Clicker Training – training dogs in Obedience, by Margie English

Sign up here receive blog updates by email


This is not my article, but has so much valid information that everybody should read it.  The author is Margie English, a very wise, and accomplished dog trainer from the Eastern USA.– Monique Anstee


The use of a clicker or other bridging stimulus is a wonderful tool for training an animal with whom you have no social relationship. You can train a killer whale to pee in a cup. You can train a chicken to play tic-tac-toe. You can train a homicidal elephant to put his foot  through a hole in his cage to have his hoof trimmed.

While the behavior of these animals has changed and made them more convenient to care for or exploit, the social relationship remains unchanged. The homicidal elephant will still kill anyone who enters his enclosure. The killer whale doesn’t feel any different about you after he pees in your cup. And who knows what chickens feel?

None of these animals live in our homes. They are not our companions. When their trainers go home at the end of the day, the animals are on their own doing whatever they get to do when left to their own devices in captivity.

We expect much more from our dogs, and our clients expect even more from
their dogs. Fortunately, we are blessed with an animal whose ancestors picked us out and figured out how to get along with us. (If you haven’t already, please read THE COVENANT OF THE WILD by Stephen Budiansky on how domestication evolved in some species.)

Consider this: You can’t herd dolphins. If you want to move dolphins from one tank to another, you can’t just drop a net in there and shove them along. They’ll panic and drown themselves before they’ll yield to that net. You have to take the time to train them with R+ to move themselves from one tank to the next, or you’ll drown some dolphins.

If want to move sheep from one pen to the next, you send a Border Collie in there to act as a canine aversive net, and he’ll get them shoved in no time. Sheep are domesttic animals and dolphins are not.

When domestic animals evolved, one of the adaptations they made was as tolerance for informative aversive stimuli. IOW, they can learn from informative negative reinforcement. They learn quickly, and the lesson  learned becomes self-reinforcing. When he beats the R-, he wins every time. Negatively reinforced Behaviors are very sturdy and need very few  reminders. Positively reinforced behaviors need lots of reminders. This is why they’re harder to maintain and why everybody has so much trouble weaning dogs off food rewards for behaviors that don’t come naturally to them.

Sue Cone and I put on the first seminar Karen Pryor ever gave for dog trainers. (It was a NADOI conference, BTW.) Back then, Karen was totally up front about not being a dog trainer. We didn’t care. NADOI felt that dog trainers had a lot to learn from wild animal trainers at that time.

We had no idea then that the field of dog training would be taken over by
people who thought dogs should be trained as if they were wild animals.

I don’t think dogs want to be wild animals. They want to share our homes and our lives, and they’ve programmed by domestication to learn the rules on how to do that–even if they include some informative aversives. They want all the information they can get.

I once attended a seminar featuring Ted Turner the famous dolphin trainer. He was asked why dog trainers use aversives and he replied, “Because they can.”

Later he said, “Good trainers give more information than bad trainers.”

To sum up: Dogs can tolerate and use more kinds of information than wild animals can. And thy thrive on all the information they can get. Don’t short change them.

End of rant,

Margie English



Thank you SO much for this, Monique. I knew I had seen it before, but had forgotten just how timeless it was (is).

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.